Recently a friend of mine asked if my two oldest kids would participate in a replication of the the 1972 Stanford Marshmallow experiment for her daughter’s science assignment. We had been in the house most of the week, the kids love marshmallows, and I am interested in all things pertaining to the willpower and grit of my children. So I said, what the heck!
The experiment – – which entails having a child sit alone in a room at a table with a single marshmallow and the promise of a second marshmallow if they can wait the allotted time (15 minutes) – – has become a benchmark for psychological research on self control and success. In short, if a child can wait for the second marshmallow they tend to have higher standardized test scores than their counterparts, lower levels of substance abuse, and their parents reported that they were more competent (whatever that means).
I was pretty sure that Molly would wait for the second marshmallow. In addition to her will of iron she really loves sweets. And she generally thinks before she acts.
Joseph, however, had me on the edge of my seat. On the one hand, he can have extreme focus when he feels like it. But he generally takes action the moment that a thought pops into his head. He loves sweets too but it seems like any shiny or sweet distraction can, well…distract him.
You are wondering whether he ate the marshmallow, aren’t you?
Both kids waited. Angela Duckworth would be so proud!
I am happy to know that my kids could wait, especially as the video taken of them during the study showed how hard it was for them. It took great willpower for both of them to pass the time.
Molly danced around the room and counted to herself as she repeatedly peeked back at the marshmallow. She eventually turned her back to the table with the marshmallow on it so that she couldn’t see it at all.
Joseph, in keeping with his personality, pushed every limit. He played with the marshmallow. He smelled it. He licked it once. He licked it twice. He licked it a third time! He licked it four times! He put his teeth on it without actually biting it.
I, probably like you, want my kids to stick with their goals until they achieve them. Especially as, according to follow-up research to this experiment, the ability to delay gratification remains with the person for life.
Some of success is intelligence and/or talent. It appears to be hard wired. OK. Some of it is trust. I get that. My kids trusted that they would get the reward if they waited because we do not break our promises to them.
But what about the grit that is taught? How do we, as parents, teach that to our kids? How do we teach our kids stamina? Is it just practice at delayed gratification? Or is there something more?
Professor Duckworth, who studies this for a living (another totally cool I job I did not know about until now) spoke about this very subject in this 2009 TEDxBlue talk:
As you can see from watching it, she doesn’t give an answer to how to teach perseverence. “Grit” is certainly integral to success. And it can be taught. But she does not specify how. She leaves the issue to us.
I do think she hints at the answer though. I think part of what she is saying is that making a habit out of being in an uncomfortable place for part your day makes us comfortable with being uncomfortable. And tolerating discomfort is a large part of achieving a goal. So, if we want our kids to have will power, we must as parents and educators, make the effort to instill in our kids the ability to tolerate some pain and suffering. That is very hard in America’s culture of instant gratification.
That’s the hard part of teaching. Heck, it is the hard part of parenting. But that is the job. And most days I think that it is more important than teaching addition tables or grammar and punctuation. As Walter Mischel, the Stanford professor of psychology in charge of the experiment said, “We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.”
Forget your kids. Interested in your own grit score? Find out while eating all the marshmallows you want.